Mounting concern for French hostages after murder video

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The Independent Online

The Nepalese Cabinet was called to an emergency session yesterday after transmission of a video appearing to show the gruesome killing of 12 of the country's workers in Iraq.

The Nepalese Cabinet was called to an emergency session yesterday after transmission of a video appearing to show the gruesome killing of 12 of the country's workers in Iraq.

In the film, horrific even by the standards of many other such tapes shown on Islamic websites, a blindfolded man has his throat slit by a masked man in camouflage fatigues.

The video - which was issued as a second deadline for the execution of two French hostages appeared to have been extended - was accompanied by a statement from a group called the Ansa al-Sunna Army. It appears to show the 12 men who worked for the Jordan-based Morning Star Services Company, who were kidnapped on 20 August, and includes a threat to kill "every agent, traitor and spy".

After the first victim is seen moaning, then wheezing, the masked murderer displays a head for the camera then places it on the decapitated corpse. Other footage shows a man firing an assault rifle at the backs of the heads of the 11 other workers, lying in what looks like a ditch. Blood seeps from their bodies into the sand, but some of the men appear not to die instantly.

The Nepalese ambassador to Qatar, Shyamananda Suman, who covers the region, said he did not yet have official confirmation of what would be a "very bad and inhumane act". He said there had been no demands from the kidnappers or a way of contacting them. He said: "I talked to the media and appealed to the kidnappers to set them free or at least to know their demands, but all went in vain."

Frantic efforts were continuing last night to save the lives of the two French journalists held hostage. The Arab League suggested that a second deadline set by their captors would expire today, rather than last night. In the past two days, the French government has mobilised an extraordinary coalition of support for the journalists and their Syrian driver, who were captured 11 days ago by a fundamentalist Sunni group called the Islamic Army in Iraq.

In Iraq, the Muslim Scholars Association, a group of Sunni clerics believed to have contacts with insurgent groups, appealed for the release of the pair. A spokesman said they would spare no effort to free the men and issued a plea to the kidnappers. "Killing these two hostages will cause Iraq's isolation and will not help our cause," he said. "The association is waiting for you to release [them] and to make a pledge that you will never harm any party that doesn't serve the occupation."

The French Interior Minister, Dominique de Villepin, and the Mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoe, and friends and relatives of the journalists prayed for their safety at the Paris mosque yesterday. Giant portraits of Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot, 10ft high and 3ft wide, were displayed on the Paris town hall.

On Monday night, as a first deadline passed, the "Islamic Army" extended its demand that France should abandon a law banning Muslim headscarves and other religious symbols in state schools. The journalists were shown on a videotape on al-Jazeera television, begging their countrymen to demonstrate for the abolition of the law, which takes effect tomorrow.

But the French government has ruled out any concession to the hostage-takers. Instead, the French Foreign Minister, Michel Barnier, was continuing his shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East, trying to gain leverage from France's status as a leading opponent of the 2003 Gulf War.

M. Barnier is emphasising two points to the Arab media: first, France opposed the US-led invasion of Iraq and supports the Palestinian cause; second, the law on religious symbols is a defence of the secular French state, not an attack on Islam.

Many senior figures in the Middle East, from government ministers to radical opposition groups such as the Palestinian Hamas, have called on the "Islamic Army" to reward France's opposition to the war by freeing the men.

French newspapers said a former intelligence chief, General Philippe Rondot, an expert on the Arab world, had been sent to Iraq. Officials refused to confirm or deny the reports.